Signs of appreciation for frontline workers are attached to the fence outside the Northwood seniors’ complex in Halifax on April 22, 2020. Photo: Erica Butler..

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Nova Scotians who work in nursing homes, publicly-funded home-care, hospitals, and ambulances will receive a one-time lump sum of $2,000 this July in recognition of their efforts during the pandemic. The news was announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yesterday. A news release from the province of Nova Scotia says 43,000 people will be eligible to receive it.

The “pandemic premium” will apply to full-time, part-time, and casual workers who will have worked all four months since March 13. Employees who volunteered to work at a facility experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak will also qualify for the benefit which is taxable.

The federal government is contributing $80.5 million and the Nova Scotia government is participating with a contribution of $13.4 million to the Essential Health Care Workers Program.

“Front-line health-care providers are working flat out to keep Nova Scotians safe and healthy during this unprecedented time, sometimes putting their own lives at risk,” said Premier Stephen McNeil. “We are pleased to partner with the federal government on a program that recognizes the hard work and unique challenges front-line health-care workers face due to COVID-19.”

The governments of Quebec and Ontario (with funding from Ottawa) moved two to three weeks ago to top up the hourly wages of workers in long-term care, partly as recognition of their service and partly to try to fill vacant positions in nursing homes, where more than half the COVID-19 deaths in Canada have occurred. As the Halifax Examiner reported on April 28, at that time Nova Scotia did not appear in a hurry to follow.

“We are continually monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 on our citizens and our publicly funded health sector workforce,” wrote Marla MacInnis, a spokesperson for the province’s COVID-19 media response team. “We are not contemplating providing ‘pandemic pay premiums’ at this time.”

That was then and this is now. Yesterday’s news release says McNeil “lobbied” the federal government for flexibility to expand the cash bonus to groups of workers not originally covered by the  federal top-up program.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents about 4800 workers —  including cleaners, dietary workers, continuing care assistants, recreation therapists, and licensed practical nurses — at 49 nursing homes in Nova Scotia. Louise Riley heads up CUPE’s Long-Term Care Committee. Riley is pleased with the recognition for essential workers who generally earn $17-$19 an hour. But she said it would mean  more if this temporary raise was permanent. Riley said an extra $2 an hour would reduce turnover at nursing homes and allow people to stop working two jobs.

“We would like to see this — not just for this incident — but a living wage every day,” said Riley. “If you can do it in a pandemic, you should be able to do it all the time. Make it a meaningful change.”

Riley said while the bonus is “a good thing,” her union is concerned it does not include workers at Residential Care homes for adults with physical and intellectual disabilities. These “group homes” homes are funded by the provincial Department of Community Services. Riley estimates another 1,500 CUPE members are following the same public health protocols as home-care or continuing care workers in residential settings where they provide personal care  for people with disabilities.  She said CUPE will be asking the province to extend the pandemic premium to this group of front-line workers as well.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Just to reiterate, the feds are paying for 85% of this program but the province gets to set the rules. The McNeil government has decided that front line workers who support adults with intellectual disabilities, autism and long-term mental illness should not receive any consideration. More evidence of ableism?